Friday, July 31, 2009

The military: coming to a neighborhood near you

From the 03 August 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

The July 25, 2009 edition of the New York Times dropped a bombshell about the war on terror and its subsequent war on the Constitution. The Times reported that then vice-president Dick Cheney and Defense Department executives pushed hard for the use of military force to bring in the Lackawanna Six in 2002. This use of force was ultimately denied by President Bush who exercised some sense and utilized, instead, the FBI.

We here in Western New York are at what would have been ground zero for the invasion. But, you wouldn’t know it. There has been little public outcry over the Times’ story. There haven’t been any follow-up stories in the local radio, television and print news outlets. The blogosphere has been unusually tame. Even the talk at water coolers and diners hasn’t addressed the issue as one would have assumed. It’s almost as if people don’t care.

Maybe that indifference can be chalked-up to the fact that the military occupation never happened, that it was only an idea being discussed by the Bush Administration. Chances are good, too, that the disinterest can be attributed to the new mindset of the American citizen, the belief by many that it’s perfectly fine for liberty to be forsaken for the (perceived) sense of security. They might be comforted by the thought of the armed forces busting the terrorists and “teaching them a lesson.”

This topic does deserve discussion and an ongoing one at that. It may have been just an idea, but it was so very close to becoming a reality, one that wasn’t carried out in 2002 but could easily be carried out now and in the future.

Had the army actually visited the Buffalo suburb I think things would have been quite different. People would have been pretty upset. Imagine the tranquility of a typical September day in suburban New York being upset by the rumbling of tanks and Humvees making their way down Main Street. Imagine the horror of the Lackawanna residents, wondering why their sidewalks and lawns were teeming with armed soldiers. Imagine the nightmare that could have occurred had the Lackawanna Six saw the troops coming, instead of being caught off-guard by the more clandestine FBI: It might have been the second coming of Waco, but only in a more populated area, putting thousands of citizens in harm’s way.

I have nothing but the utmost respect for our men and women in the military, but their responsibilities and duties have their place and Downtown USA is not it. It’s illogical to roll out the forces to arrest a handful of individuals. Worse yet, it’s highly illegal.

For starters, an arrest carried out as military action on American soil sullies the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth protects every one of us – guilty or not – from unabated government intrusion. It notes, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The capture of the Lackawanna cell would have broken every component of the Amendment. Many would say that they were terrorists – enemies of the USA – and not worthy of the same rights that we all share. That sort of logic is misguided. The terrorists were, at the time, still suspects (they had not yet been found guilty) and breaking the rules for one class of citizen or crime can set a precedent whereby law-abiding citizens can be subjected to the same sort of seizure and arrest. Refer to the definitions of terrorists issued in numerous federal reports this year. Any one of us could be labeled an enemy of the state.

Beyond the Constitution itself, law was instituted in 1878 to prevent such an exercise of force. The Posse Comitatus Act limits military action on non-federal property in the United States and excludes them from carrying out arrests and other police-like activity unless authorized by the Constitution or an act of Congress.

The Lackawanna arrest would not have met those criteria, making the military action illegal.

Or so we thought.

Aiding Cheney in his cause were members of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel who wrote that the President could do what he wanted, regardless of the Constitution or Posse Comitatus, because he was granted special powers to tackle September 11-era terror threats anywhere on Earth, whether abroad or on American soil.

Basically, the puppeteers in administrations past, present and future believe that laws and rights mean nothing to the government and they can contort them to satisfy any need they might have, as long as the majority of the population can be made willing. So, be careful, the military might one day come to a neighborhood near you.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Summer of '09: What global warming?

From the 27 July 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

The family and I were supposed to go on vacation in northern Saskatchewan in mid-June. A few days before we were to fly out we received a phone call from the camp’s owner who said we’d have to postpone the trip. The lake was covered by four feet of ice!

So, we went there a couple of weeks back. Not surprisingly, the lake still had mammoth sheets of ice floating on it on July 11. Mind you, this was not the tundra. It’s a lake that’s normally ice-free by the end of May.

That delay to the start to the summer is reminiscent of what has happened on the home front. After a lengthy, very cold winter, most Western New Yorkers were suffering from cabin fever and looking forward to getting outside and enjoying those oh-so-few months of sun and warmth. For many, 2009 has been a real letdown. Our summer has often seemed nonexistent and just a run-off of our spring. By any standard it has been unusually cool with nippy nights and temperate days.

Personally, you won’t hear me complaining about 50-degree sleeping weather or daytime highs around 70, but most folks don’t dig that. Professionally, though, I don’t either; it’s hurting my business. Those who find it a little too frigid haven’t opened their swimming pools or invested in a hot tub, which in turn has prevented Confer Plastics from selling the products they need to enter those watery retreats from the summer heat. Day-in and day-out we hear from pool and spa professionals in the Northeast and Midwest that this has been one of the coldest summers in recent memory. Because of that, our pool/spa-related sales are down about 7 percent versus last year.

Our industry is not alone in a loss that is independent of the slow economy. Outdoor-dining venues have taken a beating. Summer retail sales hit such lows that stores began discounting weeks earlier than they normally would.

These are not just anecdotal references about the state of the environment. The statistics can back them up.

The Buffalo-Niagara region had only 6 days of 80-degree heat by mid-July when almost 20 of them are typical by that point in time. Atlantic City had its third-wettest June ever, which was the Northeast’s coldest in 27 years. Even the usually-balmy Southwest had its coldest June in 42 years.

This trend hasn’t ended, either. July weekly temps in the upper Midwest were 10 degrees below average. Canada’s temperatures have been well below normal since December and gardeners and farmers in central Alberta actually had to deal with frost a week and a half ago.

This weather is definitely not normal.

The press, the environmentalists, the Left, Al Gore…they all knew it would be abnormal. But, even so, they were wrong. Dead wrong. This year’s climate trend has been the exact opposite of what the global warming alarmists have been calling for. We were supposed to be facing deadly heat and droughts. Instead, we’re looking at lower temps and lots of rainfall throughout North America.

This year’s cool weather hasn’t been the only tell-tale sign of their errors. Remember Hurricane Katrina? Wasn’t that storm supposed to usher in a new era of relentless and deadly storms? Hurricane seasons have been downright tame since then.

This general cooling is comforting in a way. For starters, it’s nice to know the environment isn’t taking a beating and heading down a never-ending path of overheating and absolute destruction. And, secondly, it has shown that I and other naysayers (often deemed “idiots” by the Green people) have been right all along: Global Warming is not the gospel, it’s a flawed belief.

Most people in Middle America are practical souls and have never fully believed in the nonsense and fear mongering of the Inconvenient Truth and its zombie-like following in academia and the media. But, sadly, policy-makers aren’t so logical and have tuned-out the not-so-hot real world. They continue to believe in the questionable science of Gore’s doomsday prophecy while pushing for equally-cartoonish and oppressive regulations such as CAFE and Cap-and-Trade.

I think that before they go any further with such laws they need to get out of the Capitol Building and spend some time in the great outdoors. Then, we’ll see what they really think about global warming.

The Fourth Amendment's Shocking Development

From the New American, 20 July 2009

By Bob Confer

In a ruling issued in June, Niagara County (New York) Judge Sara Sheldon Sperrazza concluded that the Niagara Falls Police Department was justified in its use of a Taser to extract DNA from a suspect and that doing so was not unconstitutional. It is believed to be the first ruling of its kind in the United States, one that could set an ugly precedent for the continued pillaging of the Fourth Amendment, which has seen some very dark days since September 11, 2001.

The criteria Sperrazza used to hone her decision were eerily similar to those exerted by the Bush and Obama administrations when detaining or eavesdropping on terror suspects. She painted the young man as a threat to society and worthy of tweaking of the Constitution in an effort to prevent a continuation of his alleged criminal efforts. The individual in question, 21-year-old Ryan Smith, was accused of invading his ex-girlfriend’s home where he shot a man in the groin, tied up the woman’s children, and then forced her to take him to home of the man who Smith had just shot.

Granted, Smith might not be a model citizen (he is also accused of robbing a gas station at gunpoint in 2006), but he is worthy of two key rights that we all share; one, that we are innocent until proven guilty and, two, that the people have, per the Fourth Amendment, “the right … to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

There is little that is more unreasonable than using a Taser to obtain evidence by immobilizing the suspect, especially one who was rightfully unwilling to give up his DNA because the Court had not consulted with the defense beforehand as is customary practice. It should also be noted that Smith had given a sample just a month prior, one that the police department had mishandled and allowed to spoil. Since Smith was so indignant, the police consulted with the prosecutor who, according to police reports, suggested they use "any means necessary." The Taser — rather than patience and due diligence — ended up being that means.

Smith, who was at the time sitting on the floor and in handcuffs according to The Buffalo News, was shocked — some would say tortured — by 50,000 volts for 4 seconds, a violent means by which to carry out a simple court order. Some would argue that the officers used force that had the potential to be deadly (certain agencies within the Canadian government are seriously reconsidering their use of stun guns because more than 20 people have died from police Tasing in the past six years alone in Canada, a nation one-tenth as populous as ours and one with much less crime).

Despite such concern, the definition of “unreasonable searches” remains in the eye of the beholder. With activist judges who support the other operations of government rather than serving as their check-and-balance, the definition can be manipulated to an end that satisfies the state. Judge Sperrazza, in an attempt to deflect her support for this style of governance, wrote that the court does not have the scientific knowledge necessary to interpret the facts about Tasers and she asked the question, “It (50,000 volts) sounds like a high number but what is its relevance to the force imposed and pain inflicted?” Such logic opens the floodgates for further stun gun use — and other violent tactics — to secure court orders because the methods and instruments used, in the court’s opinion, remain either irrelevant or harmless.

That freewheeling tone is present throughout the court papers in which Sperrazza also says the Taser use was warranted as long as it wasn’t done “maliciously, or to an excessive extent, or with resulting injury,” because the situation represented a “perfect storm where the crimes being investigated were egregious.” Once again, she set a legal precedent by implying that the Fourth Amendment can be ignored or adjusted depending on the severity of the alleged crime. Compounding this abuse of the amendment is the fact that “egregious” is a nebulous term. One could expand on that wording and wonder if all-noncompliant individuals (such as executives who won’t release sensitive documents or a citizen who struggles to pay fees or fines) might be subject to shocking due to their “egregious” acts. Defense attorney Patrick M. Balkin raised the same worry in denouncing the ruling: “[Sperrazza's] decision says you can enforce a court order by force. If you extrapolate that, we no longer have to have child support hearings; you can just Taser the parent," Balkin said.

It is this same mindset which has allowed the Patriot Act to sully the Fourth and Fifth Amendments through containment, torture, eavesdropping and other nefarious means. Shocking is no better — and definitely deadlier — than the waterboarding tactics we hear so much about. It’s more accessible, too, as most officers carry a stun gun, something they are now empowered to use without restraint, which, in the end, puts all citizens — good or bad — at risk.

As with the Patriot Act, it looks as if Sperraza’s conclusions might go unchecked. Neither Ryan Smith nor his lawyer has expressed any interest in appealing the court’s ruling. That means the constitutionality of the case won’t be addressed, and it will be used as a template for future acts by which the government can forcibly steal not just our property, but parts of our person as well.

The Founding Fathers would find this to be a truly shocking development.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The federal assault on farms

From the 20 July 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

As the recession presses on, in conjunction with the overblown fear of global warming, we witness the government continually changing the rules of the game to doing business. It has instituted - and will continue to institute - rigid controls over banking and finance in an effort to suppress risk-tasking while, at the same time, extending oversight on manufacturers and consumers who might be putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

It seemed that the only business sector that was safe from Big Brother’s meddling hand was one of Mankind’s oldest pursuits: agriculture. But, things have changed. Farming is now in the sights of Uncle Sam. Once again using fear as a tactic to claim control over our day-to-day lives, Congress has introduced bill HR 2749 (the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009) that it says will prevent the spread of E coli, Mad Cow and the like by empowering the Food and Drug Administration to regulate farms of all sizes. As with anything the federal government is wont to do, it’s not the threat of the disease we should fear but rather the government itself. HR 2749 would give the FDA almost unlimited power that would touch on every facet of a farm’s operation.

It starts, like all federal activities do, with registration. Any facility that holds, processes, or manufactures food would have to register on annual basis with the government to the tune of $500. This regulation would extend to any person or small enterprise selling their “manufactured” foods (which include breads and cheeses) at a local farmers market. That is a burdensome fee, especially to all the small vendors who would consider themselves lucky to surpass $500 in sales during a bountiful season. The fee will put many folks, especially the roadside stands, out of business.

The next step in the federal takeover is tracking. This bill would establish a food tracing system that would require farms and food producers, large and small, to track the origins of their food, whether they grew it or it was previously distributed. Extensive records would need to be maintained that show exactly where the fruits and vegetables came from, how they were grown, how they were stored and just who they were sold to. Based on that, all registered farms would be subject to warrantless searches whereby the FDA would have carte blanche to analyze all of their private records to verify appropriate tracking.

That same FDA also thinks that it knows farming better than the farmers do, so the Act would allow the agency to regulate how crops are raised and harvested. Many believe that the FDA would follow standards introduced by the World Trade Organization which, among other things, would ban manure use and require the chemical enhancement of crops and cattle. Farmers would be forced to abandon practices that have been safely used to feed people for generations.

If by chance the FDA did discover a contamination, the bill would empower the government to create a police state to suppress an outbreak. They would have the ability to quarantine an entire geographic region and prevent the movement of produce in and out of the designated area. If one farm in a given town was shown to provide tainted foods all other farms in that town would need to cease operations while the government’s investigation takes place. If that happens during that small and crucial window of time when crops need to be harvested or food producers need to be supplied the farmers will lose out on their livelihood.

To the farmer, the Act amounts to a massive loss of rights. It’s comparable to the Patriot Act of agriculture. It looks at what they do with a fine-toothed comb and demands that they conform to a set of practices laid out by an oppressive federal agency.

To the consumer, the Act means higher prices at the grocery store. The new rules and regulations will only add to the cost of doing business. And, don’t forget, the government has already forced food prices through the roof in recent years thanks to inflation caused by bad monetary policy and the ill-advised pursuit of ethanol which caused corn, corn products, and everything that eats corn (chicken, swine and cattle) to go up in value.

HR 2749 is just another in a long line of attacks on capitalism and freedom in the United States of America. But, there’s still a chance to stop it. You must write or call your congressperson and ask him or her to vote against the Act. If they don’t, farmers – and consumers – everywhere will suffer.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The EPA vs. boats, mowers, and jobs

From the 13 July 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

We’ve been told time and time again that the exhaust from gas-powered engines used in our vehicles contributes to the degradation of the environment. In the 1970’s we were told that the excessive fumes would cool the Earth and bring on a new ice age. In the 1990’s and 2000’s the tune switched: The carbon dioxide would warm the Earth, melt the polar ice caps and bring on mass starvation.

With Al Gore and similar Chicken Littles relentlessly driving that point home, regulatory agencies tend to overact. After all, if they don’t do something, that one-degree difference in air temperature might condemn a billion people to death. That’s where folks like the California Air Resource Board come in to devise some truly-ridiculous regulations.

CARB somehow got it in their heads that your fuel tanks and powered-equipment not only contribute to global warming when they’re running, but also when they are not. They believe that the plastic tanks and hoses used on your lawn tractor and boat breathe incredible amounts of gas fumes to the air on a non-stop basis. Sure, they might pass some gas through a vented cap or a loose-fitting hose but that’s not what CARB focused on. Instead, they analyzed the gas molecules that gradually work their way through the walls of the tanks or the bodies of the hose. It sounds too nutty to be true, but the CARB people became adamant that those ultra-microscopic particles are killing the atmosphere and, in turn, polar bears. So, laws were devised in California that would stop this fiendish assault on the environment.

Sadly, the Environmental Protection Agency ate-up this tripe and decided to introduce similar standards at the federal level for mowers and watercraft, beginning in 2011. That means pricy changes to the products themselves, both to the manufacturer and the consumer.

Manufacturers like Biggs & Stratton must offer products that do not lend themselves to diurnal emissions, requiring significant changes to the make-up of the goods. It could mean new fuel tanks. To do that, they and their suppliers will have to ditch the basic technology that’s been used for decades. Most tanks will need to be manufactured in a multi-layer manufacturing process, much like a ketchup bottle but in a larger scale.

Because of the investment in manufacturing equipment, most of their suppliers will no longer make fuel tanks. You can see that locally…right here at my company. We’ve been making gas tanks since the 1970’s. 2010 will be the last year we do that. The new-fangled machines necessary to mold what the EPA wants would cost us over $4 million. In comparison, the machine that makes them as they are right now would cost less than a million. It doesn’t take an accountant to see that purchasing the new machine is a poor investment. The payback would occur well after a dozen years. Because of that, we will lose that portion of the business and a few Western New Yorkers will lose their job thanks to the EPA. Other manufacturers will follow suit and only those willing to go out on a limb and buy a new line will be making tanks any more, that is, if their finances, already affected by the recession, can assume the risk for the long-term.

But enough about me and the business world. What about you?

The new tanks and hoses (in conjunction with catalytic converters, which represent another way to meet the standard) will add significantly to the cost of lawnmower. CARB says the law will make a push mower $50 more expensive. The EPA says a riding mower will be $100 more expensive.

Chances are, when you’re done mowing the lawn you want to get out on the water and relax. That’s when the new law really kicks you. It will make a portable marine fuel tank twice as costly or add $280 to the cost of an outboard engine and $360 to a jet ski.

If you don’t find that to be bothersome enough, realize that if the mower manufacturers go to catalytic converters they might make the environment even worse. The EPA’s proponents state that those engines run hotter, so they increase the risk of fire when cutting near lawn debris (like dead grass or leaves) or in a dry place (like California).

Sometimes, with laws like this, you just need to sit back and see how oppressive – and stupid – our government has become. You could beat them at their own game, though, and buy your next mower, boat, or fuel tank this year or next. Not only will you be stimulating the economy, but you’ll be stimulating the atmosphere, too.

How to shrink our government

From the 06 July 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

The New York State Senate has been at a standstill since June 8. Lost amidst all the well-deserved bad press surrounding the coup is the fact that just a few days earlier the Assembly and Senate had passed a bill that is one of the best of this session if not of all sessions of recent memory. The bill, penned not by a legislator but by attorney general Andrew Cuomo, is called the New York Reorganization and Empowerment Act and it makes it easier to consolidate or dissolve local governments in the Empire State. It has since been signed into being by Governor David Paterson and it goes into effect in late-March of 2010.

The bill addresses one of the greatest problems facing NY residents…local governments that are many and redundant, creating undue tax burdens. According to Cuomo’s office there are 10,521 local government entities in the state, representing towns, villages and special districts (such as water and refuse) many of them offering the very same services as a neighboring community, some better than others. Highlighting this duplication of efforts, there are 6,900 town special districts across the state while there are only 932 towns. According to a commission that was created by former Governor Eliot Spitzer to look into this, some $1 billion in annual savings could be had through a wide variety of consolidation measures. That’s $1 billion in property tax payments, the same mammoth tax bills that make real estate a poor investment in NY and drive people from our borders.

Unlike most state laws, this one is not a mandate. It’s not the State coming down on towns telling them they should dissolve and combine. No, this is something rather refreshing. It’s an old-school bill that recognizes that the real power comes from the people and not from the top down. It allows everyday average citizens to initiate the change necessary to make living in New York a little more palatable.

How does it work?

Suppose you live in Hartland and you wonder why you can’t share services with the town of Royalton, a similarly-rural and undeveloped town. They share a school-district, so why couldn’t these two towns that already have a common bond become one? To go about starting the process, you could ask the towns’ councils to pursue the process, during which they would have to ask for voter approval.

If the councilmen and women found your idea to be a little harebrained (or a threat to their power) and did not advance the discussion, you could advance it on your own. To do so, you would need to start a petition drive. You would need to collect signatures from 10 percent of those living in Royalton and 10 percent of those living in Hartland. Once that task is done, it goes to the polls. If a majority of the electors vote in favor of dissolution and consolidation, the town leaders must create a plan to move ahead with the cause.

Similarly, you can apply this effort to special districts as well and eliminate them within your towns. Due to special district dissolution being less threatening than town dissolution, there is one difference between the processes: If it has been initiated by the governing body, a voter referendum is not necessary.

It sounds easy enough, but, realize it has been a long time coming. When the Reorganization and Empowerment Act becomes law in 2010 it will have been 75 years since the State’s Mastick Commission first noted there were far too many local governments in New York. Think about that: State leaders have known about this problem since the Great Depression and up until now, no one had done a thing about it. But, things have changed and so have our people. In this day and age of Tea Parties, irate taxpayers, and a generally-disgusted electorate, there are plenty of individuals chomping at the bit to use this great tool by which they can put a little bit of power back into our hands. Understand, though, that it’s not a perfect bill. It doesn’t allow us to act on the elimination or combination of cities, counties, or school districts, the latter being the largest portion of our property tax bills. But, it’s a start nonetheless.